Those bright safety reflectors, aka "retroreflectors," on sneakers, running apparel and bike fenders are taking on an illuminating new role: detecting bioterrorism threats and diagnosing everyday infectious diseases.
Led by Richard Willson of the University of Houston, scientists from the University of Texas and Sandia National Laboratories are developing an ultrasensitive, all-in-one device that utilizes retroreflectors to rapidly tell first-responders exactly which disease-causing microbe has been deployed in a bioterrorism attack.
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Additionally, the scientists are also developing technology intended for use in doctors' offices and clinics where retroreflectors could provide a rapid, on-site diagnosis of common infectious diseases before patients leave, thus eliminating the wait for test results.
Researchers were able to design retroreflectors so small that 200 would fit in the dot over the letter "i." These microfabricated retroreflectors were given a biochemical surface capable of detecting pathogens, effectively making them a lab-on-a-chip, with minute channels that can process small amounts of blood or other fluids.
For example, as it flows through the channels, a sample fluid containing bacteria would cause parts of the reflectors to go dark, signaling a positive test. If the fluid sample was free of the bacteria or disease-causing virus, the reflectors would shine brightly.
"Right now, we have seven channels in our device," researcher Balakrishnan Raja, part of Willson's team, said in a news release. "So we can test for seven different infections at once, but we could make more channels. That's one of our long-term goals - to multiplex the device and detect many pathogens at once."
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Normally, pathogen detection is an intricate process that involves extracting blood and labeling nucleic acids with special dyes, all of which requires elaborate instrumentation, complex optical equipment and time. Wilson and his colleagues are proposing a device that could provide more immediate results and is small enough to be carried by first responders or doctors.
Researchers clinically demonstrated retroreflectors that were successful at identifying fluid samples containing a bacteria that causes Mediterranean spotted fever. Wilson and his team presented their project this week at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society.
via American Chemical Society Credit: Craig van der Lende/Getty Images